A teenage Ernesto (left) with his parents and siblings, c. 1944, seated beside him from left to right: Celia (mother), Celia (sister), Roberto, Juan Martín, Ernesto (father) and Ana María
Ernesto Guevara was born to Ernesto Guevara Lynch and Celia de la Serna y Llosa, on June 14, 1928, in Rosario, Argentina, according to his birth certificate, but, according to biographer Jon Lee Anderson's book Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Che's mother confided to an astrologer friend that he was actually born on May 14, 1928. The deception was made to avoid the scandal of having been already three months pregnant before marriage.
He is the eldest of five children in a middle-class Argentine family of Spanish (including Basque and Cantabrian) descent, as well as Irish by means of his patrilineal ancestor Patrick Lynch. In accordance with the flexibility allowed in Spanish naming customs, his legal name (Ernesto Guevara) will sometimes appear with "de la Serna" and/or "Lynch" accompanying it. Referring to Che's "restless" nature, his father declared "the first thing to note is that in my son's veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels".
Very early on in life, Ernestito (as he was then called) developed an "affinity for the poor". Growing up in a family with leftist leanings, Guevara was introduced to a wide spectrum of political perspectives even as a boy. His father, a staunch supporter of Republicans from the Spanish Civil War, often hosted many veterans from the conflict in the Guevara home.
Despite suffering crippling bouts of acute asthma that were to afflict him throughout his life, he excelled as an athlete, enjoying swimming, football, golf, and shooting, while also becoming an "untiring" cyclist. He was an avid rugby union player, and played at fly-half for Club Universitario de Buenos Aires. His rugby playing earned him the nickname "Fuser"—a contraction of El Furibundo (raging) and his mother's surname, de la Serna—for his aggressive style of play.
Intellectual and literary interests
22-year-old Guevara in 1951
Guevara learned chess from his father, and began participating in local tournaments by the age of 12. During adolescence and throughout his life he was passionate about poetry, especially that of Pablo Neruda, John Keats, Antonio Machado, Federico García Lorca, Gabriela Mistral, César Vallejo, and Walt Whitman. He could also recite Rudyard Kipling's "If—" and José Hernández's Martín Fierro by heart. The Guevara home contained more than 3,000 books, which allowed Guevara to be an enthusiastic and eclectic reader, with interests including Karl Marx, William Faulkner, André Gide, Emilio Salgari and Jules Verne. Additionally, he enjoyed the works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Vladimir Lenin and Jean-Paul Sartre; as well as Anatole France, Friedrich Engels, H. G. Wells and Robert Frost.
As he grew older, he developed an interest in the Latin American writers Horacio Quiroga, Ciro Alegría, Jorge Icaza, Rubén Darío and Miguel Asturias. Many of these authors' ideas he cataloged in his own handwritten notebooks of concepts, definitions, and philosophies of influential intellectuals. These included composing analytical sketches of Buddha and Aristotle, along with examining Bertrand Russell on love and patriotism, Jack London on society and Nietzsche on the idea of death. Sigmund Freud's ideas fascinated him as he quoted him on a variety of topics from dreams and libido to narcissism and the Oedipus complex. His favorite subjects in school included philosophy, mathematics, engineering, political science, sociology, history and archaeology.
Years later, a declassified CIA 'biographical and personality report' dated February 13, 1958 made note of Guevara's wide range of academic interests and intellect, describing him as "quite well read" while adding that "Che is fairly intellectual for a Latino."
In 1948, Guevara entered the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine. His "hunger to explore the world" led him to intersperse his collegiate pursuits with two long introspective journeys that fundamentally changed the way he viewed himself and the contemporary economic conditions in Latin America. The first expedition in 1950 was a 4,500-kilometer (2,800 mi) solo trip through the rural provinces of northern Argentina on a bicycle on which he installed a small engine. This was followed in 1951 by a nine-month, 8,000-kilometer (5,000 mi) continental motorcycle trek through part of South America. For the latter, he took a year off from his studies to embark with his friend Alberto Granado, with the final goal of spending a few weeks volunteering at the San Pablo leper colony in Peru, on the banks of the Amazon River.
A map of Guevara's 1952 trip with Alberto Granado
(the red arrows correspond to air travel)
In Chile, Guevara found himself enraged by the working conditions of the miners in Anaconda's Chuquicamata copper mine and moved by his overnight encounter in the Atacama Desert with a persecuted communist couple who did not even own a blanket, describing them as "the shivering flesh-and-blood victims of capitalist exploitation". Additionally, on the way to Machu Picchu high in the Andes, he was struck by the crushing poverty of the remote rural areas, where peasant farmers worked small plots of land owned by wealthy landlords. Later on his journey, Guevara was especially impressed by the camaraderie among those living in a leper colony, stating, "The highest forms of human solidarity and loyalty arise among such lonely and desperate people." Guevara used notes taken during this trip to write an account, titled The Motorcycle Diaries, which later became a New York Times best-seller, and was adapted into a 2004 award-winning film of the same name.
A motorcycle journey the length of South America awakened him to the injustice of US domination in the hemisphere, and to the suffering colonialism
brought to its original inhabitants.
—George Galloway, British politician
The journey took Guevara through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Miami, Florida, for 20 days, before returning home to Buenos Aires. By the end of the trip, he came to view Latin America not as collection of separate nations, but as a single entity requiring a continent-wide liberation strategy. His conception of a borderless, united Hispanic America sharing a common Latino heritage was a theme that recurred prominently during his later revolutionary activities. Upon returning to Argentina, he completed his studies and received his medical degree in June 1953, making him officially "Dr. Ernesto Guevara".
Guevara later remarked that through his travels in Latin America, he came in "close contact with poverty, hunger and disease" along with the "inability to treat a child because of lack of money" and "stupefaction provoked by the continual hunger and punishment" that leads a father to "accept the loss of a son as an unimportant accident". Guevara cited these experiences as convincing him that in order to "help these people", he needed to leave the realm of medicine and consider the political arena of armed struggle.